It’s never too early to focus on college basketball, especially when the team you cover is coming off back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances.
The Iowa Hawkeyes will look to make it three trips in a row to the Big Dance under coach Fran McCaffery, but it won’t be easy while facing a rugged Big Ten schedule. It’s reasonable to think the Big Ten will have at least six teams in the next NCAA Tournament, including the Hawkeyes.
Here’s how I see the 14 conference teams stacking up now:
1. Maryland – Joining the Big Ten Conference has worked out well for the Terrapins in basketball and the situation should only get better this winter. Maryland became a popular choice to win the conference regular-season title when point guard Melo Trimble announced he was returning for his sophomore season. Trimble, who is equally adept at scoring and distributing, will be joined by a deep and talented supporting cast, that includes 6-foot-8, 247-pound Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter, 6-4 Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon and star center recruit Diamond Stone, assuming he meets his academic requirements.
Carter averaged 11.4 point and 8.4 rebounds per game as a sophomore for Georgia Tech in 2013-14 before sitting out last season under NCAA transfer rules. Sulaimon played well enough as a freshman at Duke that there was talk he might leave early for the NBA. He now hopes to redeem himself and re-energize his career after being dismissed from the Duke team in January. The 6-10 Stone, who is from Milwaukee, is considered one of the top post players in the incoming freshmen class.
The Terps also return several key players from last season’s team that finished second in the Big Ten. They include 6-8 forward Jake Layman, 6-11 center Damonte Dodd, 6-6 sharpshooter Jared Nickens and 6-4 guard Dion Wiley.
2. Purdue – The Boilermakers are similar to Maryland in that their stock also has risen dramatically because of two decisions made after this past season. What was a decent team on paper now looks like a title contender with 7-0 center A.J. Hammons returning for his senior season and 6-9 prize recruit Caleb Swanigan backing out of his commitment to Michigan State to attend Purdue. Combine them with a 7-2, 297-pound sophomore center Issac Haas and the Boilermakers could have dominant frontline.
The biggest concern is a point guard where departed senior Jon Octeus has to be replaced. Whoever wins the job will play alongside two dependable wing scorers in 6-5 senior Rapheal Davis and 6-6 junior Kendall Stephens.
3. Michigan State – The Spartans would’ve been my choice for second place if Swanigan had stayed committed to them. But even without him and without departed seniors Travis Trice and Branden Dawson, it’s hard to pick a team coached by Tom Izzo to finish worse than third place.
And it’s not as if the cupboard is empty with seniors Denzel Valentine, Matt Costello and Bryn Forbes all returning. Sophomore point guard Lourawls Nairn also played well enough last season to where Trice came off the bench for some games.
West Virginia transfer Eron Harris, a 6-3 guard, and incoming freshman Deyonte Davis, a 6-10 frontline player, also will join the mix. Davis was named Michigan Mr. Basketball as a senior.
4. Wisconsin – I’m not real confident about picking the Badgers this high considering all of the personnel losses. It was done mostly out of habit and as a sign of respect to head coach Bo Ryan, who incredibly never has finished below fourth place in the Big Ten as the Wisconsin coach.
The Badgers are a glowing example of how a developmental program should work. Role players eventually become star players over time. Junior forward Nigel Hayes and junior guard Bronson Koenig will assume starring roles this season.
5. Indiana – The Hoosiers will be loaded on the perimeter with its top three guards from last season – Yogi Ferrell, James Blackmon Jr. and Robert Johnson – leading the way.
Troy Williams, a 6-7 junior forward, is one of the Big Ten’s most athletic players and a potential star if he can be more consistent.
The frontline still is a concern, although, 6-10 four-star recruit Thomas Bryant should have an immediate impact.
6. Iowa – Nobody can accuse me of being a homer because I’m picking Iowa to finish three spots below its third-place finish from last season, even with four starters returning. It’s almost as if teams three through eight in the Big Ten are interchangeable, each capable of finishing above the other.
Replacing all-Big Ten forward Aaron White will be a daunting task because he meant so much to the team in terms of statistics and leadership. McCaffery will rely on 6-9 senior Jarrod Uthoff to fill White’s starring role, while 7-1 center Adam Woodbury will provide stability in the paint. Senior guards Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons are two of the Big Ten’s most experienced backcourt players, while junior shooting guard Peter Jok is a much-needed 3-point threat.
Two or three of Iowa’s six incoming recruits also could crack the rotation. The most likely candidate would seem to be 6-8 junior-college transfer Dale Jones, who excels as a perimeter shooter.
7. Michigan – Injuries kept the Wolverines from meeting expectations last season. But now everybody is healthy, including starting guards Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr. Combine those two with Zak Irvin, Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rahkman, Aubrey Dawkins and Spike Albrecht and coach John Beilein has more than enough pieces to make some noise.
8. Ohio State – Thad Matta’s ability to reload will be tested this coming season. In addition to all-Big Ten freshman guard D’Angelo Russell declaring for the NBA draft, the Buckeyes also lose seniors Sam Thompson, Shannon Scott, Amir Williams, Trey McDonald and Anthony Lee from a team that only finished 11-7 in the Big Ten.
Marc Loving, a 6-7 junior, should have an expanded role this season, especially on offense. Matta also will welcome a heralded five-player recruiting class that includes five-star prospect Jaquan Lyle, a 6-5 shooting guard.
9. Illinois – The return of point guard Tracy Abrams from an injury should help compensate for losing Rayvonte Rice, who along with center Nnanna Egwu, used up their eligibility last season. Coach John Groce has some nice complementary pieces in Kendrick Nunn, Leron Black, Malcolm Hill and Jaylon Tate. Groce also will add a talented recruiting class, so it wouldn’t surprise me if Illinois finished higher than ninth place.
10. Northwestern – Mark it down; Chris Collins will lead Northwestern to its first trip to the NCAA Tournament. It probably won’t happen this season, but the Wildcats are gaining ground under Collins a former Duke player and assistant coach, who grew up in suburban Chicago.
Collins will build around talented sophomores Bryant McIntosh and Vic Law. Also back will be sharpshooter Tre Demps, center Alex Olah, shooting guard Scott Lindsey and forward Sanjay Lumkpkin. Former Virginia Tech forward Joey van Zegeren is also expected to be eligible next season as a graduate student. He averaged nearly 10 points and five rebounds per game last season before being dismissed from the Virginia Tech team.
11. Minnesota – The Gophers will try to rebound from a disappointing season in which they failed to make the postseason despite having a veteran cast. Third-year coach Richard Pitino has to replace three of his best players from last season in guards Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu and center Maurice Walker.
12. Penn State – The Nittany Lions have some nice pieces for Patrick Chambers to build around, just not enough to be a serious a contender. Replacing star guard D.J. Newbill won’t be easy. He carried much of the offensive load last season and took most of the big shots.
13. Nebraska – Tim Miles was the toast of the Big Ten at this time last year after his Cornhuskers exceeded expectations by making the 2014 NCAA Tournament. He is now a coach searching for answers in the wake of a disastrous 2014-15 season.
His search became more difficult when Terran Petteway decided to skip his senior season to enter the NBA draft.
14. Rutgers – The Scarlet Knights can’t finish any worse than last season. But that’s only because the Big Ten didn’t add any new teams. To say that head coach Eddie Jordan faces a major rebuilding job would be an understatement.